Why Reams of Intelligence Did Not Thwart the Paris Attacks

Excerpts:

“There is a clear failing,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls told French television on Friday night. “When 17 people die, it means there were cracks.”

An American official speaking about the failure to identify the plot said that French intelligence and law enforcement agencies had conducted surveillance on one or both of the Kouachi brothers after Saïd returned from Yemen, but later reduced that monitoring or dropped it altogether to focus on what were believed to be bigger threats.

One reason for the lapses may be that the number of possible jihadists inside France has continued to expand sharply. France has seen 1,000 to 2,000 of its citizens go to fight in Syria or Iraq, with about 200 returning, and the task of surveillance has grown overwhelming.

Conclusion:

The attacks were likely to aggravate the problems of Mr. Hollande, already widely considered weak and indecisive. Moreover, serious internal questions are also likely, as they were after Mohammed Merah, who had been known to the police and intelligence services, killed seven people in southwestern France in 2012, saying that he was acting on behalf of Al Qaeda.

It later emerged that Mr. Merah had traveled to Afghanistan, and that the Americans had alerted the French, who had not reacted with sufficient attention in what was considered an operational failure.

Jean-Louis Bruguière, a former antiterrorism judge who knew Chérif Kouachi when he was arrested in 2005 and a former presidential adviser on terrorism, said that the authorities could not monitor every person of interest. “You can’t keep a policeman tracking every single one of them,” he said, noting that he had interviewed hundreds of aspiring jihadists.

Why Reams of Intelligence Did Not Thwart the Paris Attacks

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The neighborhood in Gennevilliers, France, where Chérif Kouachi used to live. The French authorities are said to have had Mr. Kouachi or his brother Saïd under surveillance at one time.

AGNES DHERBEYS FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

By STEVEN ERLANGER and JIM YARDLEY

JANUARY 9, 2015

PARIS – The bloody denouement on Friday of two hostage crises at different ends of a traumatized Paris means attention will now shift to the gaping question facing the French government: How did several jihadists – and possibly a larger cell of co-conspirators – manage to evade surveillance and execute a bold attack despite being well known to the country’s police and intelligence services?

On its own, the Wednesday morning slaughter that left 12 people dead at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo represented a major breakdown for French security and intelligence forces, especially after the authorities confirmed that the two suspects, the brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, had known links to the militant group Al Qaeda in Yemen.

Then on Friday, even as the police had cornered the Kouachi brothers inside a printing factory in the northeast suburbs, another militant, Amedy Coulibaly – who has since been linked to the Kouachis – stormed a kosher supermarket in Paris and threatened to kill hostages if the police captured the Kouachis.

“There is a clear failing,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls told French television on Friday night. “When 17 people die, it means there were cracks.”

Mohammed Benali is president of a mosque in Gennevilliers where, he said, Chérif Kouachi was an infrequent visitor.

AGNES DHERBEYS FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

An American official speaking about the failure to identify the plot said that French intelligence and law enforcement agencies had conducted surveillance on one or both of the Kouachi brothers after Saïd returned from Yemen, but later reduced that monitoring or dropped it altogether to focus on what were believed to be bigger threats.

“These guys were known to be bad, and the French had tabs on them for a while,” said the American official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid complicating a delicate intelligence matter. “At some point, though, they allocated resources differently. They moved on to other targets.”

The official acknowledged that American spy agencies tracked Westerners, particularly young men, traveling in and out of Yemen much more closely after a failed Qaeda plot to blow up an airliner on Christmas Day 2009.

But the official said the United States left the monitoring of the Kouachi brothers and other French citizens in France to that country’s security services.

Graphic | The Links Between the Paris Terror Suspects and Their Connections to Jihad Where their lives intersected and what may have influenced them.

One reason for the lapses may be that the number of possible jihadists inside France has continued to expand sharply. France has seen 1,000 to 2,000 of its citizens go to fight in Syria or Iraq, with about 200 returning, and the task of surveillance has grown overwhelming.

The questions facing French intelligence services will begin with the attack at Charlie Hebdo.

The authorities knew that striking the satirical newspaper and its editor for their vulgar treatment of the Prophet Muhammad had been a stated goal of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, through its propaganda journal, Inspire.

Intelligence officers had also identified the Kouachi brothers as being previously involved in jihad-related activities, for which Chérif was convicted in 2008. Investigators have also linked Chérif to a plot to free from prison an Islamic militant convicted in the 1995 bombing of a French subway station, while French news organizations have reported that Mr. Coulibaly was also implicated in that case.

Graphic | Tracking the Aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo AttackA visual timeline of the attack and the events that followed.

Much remains unclear about the three suspects and whether they were working in a coordinated fashion. But the French apparently knew, or presumably should have known, either on their own or through close intelligence cooperation with the United States, that Saïd had traveled to Yemen in 2011.

News reports on Friday said that Saïd had met with the American-born Anwar al-Awlaki, a member and propagandist for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who was later killed by an American drone strike.

Security officials and acquaintances said that Mr. Kouachi’s travels in Yemen stretched from 2009 until at least 2012.

Mohammed Al-Kibsi, a journalist, said he met Mr. Kouachi in Sana, the Yemeni capital, in January 2010. At the time, Mr. Kibsi was working on an article aboutUmar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas 2009, in a plot that intelligence officials believed was guided by Mr. Awlaki.

While looking for Mr. Abdulmutallab’s house, Mr. Kibsi said, he came across Mr. Kouachi playing soccer with a group of children. Mr. Kouachi told him that he and Mr. Abdulmutallab were friends: They had lived together for a week or two, a few months before the bombing attempt. They were both learning Arabic at the Sana Institute for Arabic Language, and both worshiped at the same local mosque, he said.

Mr. Kouachi was “so friendly” and spoke using a mix of English and French, Mr. Kibsi said, adding that he saw Mr. Kouachi on at least two other occasions, at a different Arabic institute in Sana’s old city.

It was not immediately clear whether Mr. Kouachi studied at Al-Iman University, an ultraconservative religious center with links to militants that Mr. Abdulmutallab attended.

Yemen has been an American priority, not a French one, making it likely that the Kouachi brothers and Mr. Coulibaly were put lower on the priority list, intelligence analysts said Friday.

Indeed, Mr. Coulibaly apparently met President Nicolas Sarkozy in July 2009, according to the French newspaper Le Parisien. At a news media event to encourage youth employment, Mr. Coulibaly was scheduled to be among a group of nine people who had taken part in a work-training program and was working at a Coca-Cola factory in the Parisian suburbs.

“It is a pleasure to meet the president,” he told a journalist before the meeting. “I don’t know what I’m going to say to him. I will start with, ‘Good morning!’ ”

The authorities released pictures of Mr. Coulibaly and a companion, Hayat Boumeddiene, 26, though it was not clear what became of her and how deep her links were to the group.

On Friday, even as the Kouachi brothers were confronting the police several miles away, people in the Gennevilliers suburb where Chérif lived described a man who, by appearances, was a devout and solemn Muslim, if giving a few hints of extremism.

Mohammed Benali, president of the mosque in Gennevilliers, said Chérif Kouachi was an infrequent visitor who was polite, was shaven, wore jeans, and showed no signs of radicalization – “except for one incident.”

During France’s recent election, the imam consecrated a Friday Prayer to the importance of voting, which prompted Mr. Kouachi to jump up abruptly in the prayer hall and begin arguing that it was un-Islamic to vote.

“Our security personnel escorted him outside,” Mr. Benali said. “They tried to calm him down. They asked him to respect our mosque and our people.”

Chérif Kouachi was a familiar figure among some neighborhood shopkeepers, who regarded him as a serious Muslim. The owner of a bakery said whenever Chérif came inside, his wife remained outside the glass door.

Inside the apartment building where Chérif lived on the fourth floor, he was described as polite, someone who helped women carry grocery bags up the stairwell during the frequent breakdowns of the elevator. Some neighbors said they saw his wife fully covered in a niqab. Others said they assumed he lived alone.

“I always thought that he was single,” said one 24-year-old woman, who like others asked not to be identified. “He was always alone. I saw him once with a friend.”

For the French authorities, the basic questions are why they had not monitored the three men more aggressively and why the offices of Charlie Hebdo were not better protected.

“The problem we face is that even though there are not that many radicalized Muslims in France, there are enough of them to make it difficult to physically follow everyone with a suspicious background,” said Camille Grand, a former French official and director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, an independent Paris group.

“It’s one thing to listen to the phone calls or watch their travel, but it’s another to put someone under permanent physical surveillance, or even follow all their phone conversations full time for so many people,” she added.

Jean-Charles Brisard, head of the French Center for Analysis of Terrorism, praised the security response and said there were simply not enough police and security officers to keep full monitoring on everyone who goes through prison.

“It’s a problem of resources,” Mr. Brisard said.

He added that the authorities had Chérif Kouachi under surveillance “for a period of time, but then they judged that there was no threat, or the threat was lower, and they had other priorities.”

“We are understaffed,” complained an officer involved in the search of Chérif Kouachi’s apartment in the Gennevilliers suburb. “We would need to triple our staff to better protect the city.”

President François Hollande went on television Friday – before the two standoffs had ended – to try to reassure the nation, and he visited the Interior Ministry to supervise the police action.

The attacks were likely to aggravate the problems of Mr. Hollande, already widely considered weak and indecisive. Moreover, serious internal questions are also likely, as they were after Mohammed Merah, who had been known to the police and intelligence services, killed seven people in southwestern France in 2012, saying that he was acting on behalf of Al Qaeda.

It later emerged that Mr. Merah had traveled to Afghanistan, and that the Americans had alerted the French, who had not reacted with sufficient attention in what was considered an operational failure.

Jean-Louis Bruguière, a former antiterrorism judge who knew Chérif Kouachi when he was arrested in 2005 and a former presidential adviser on terrorism, said that the authorities could not monitor every person of interest. “You can’t keep a policeman tracking every single one of them,” he said, noting that he had interviewed hundreds of aspiring jihadists.

Reporting was contributed by Rukmini Callimachi, Laure Fourquet and Assia Labbas from Paris, Eric Schmitt from Washington, and Shuaib Almosawa from Sana, Yemen.

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